Shadowhunters, the television series based on the novels by Cassandra Clare, returns for its second season this January, and viewers can expect a show that will be significantly different in a number of ways, courtesy of new showrunners Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer. Veterans of Smallville, Melrose Place, No Ordinary Family, Alphas, Dominion, Defiance and Guilt, Slavkin and Swimmer are bringing a decidedly more adult(ish) and cinematic approach to the show that should allow it to expand it's already large fanbase.
The focus is on Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), who, on her eighteenth birthday, discovers that she is a Shadowhunter, one born of angel blood whose destiny is to defend humans from a wide variety of demons. Joining other Shadowhunters, she finds herself immersed in a world of vampires, warlocks, fairies and werewolves.
In the following exclusive interview, Slavkin discusses the changes that he and Swimmer have brought to the show and the reasons for them.
How is it that you and Darren ended up becoming showrunners of Shadowhunters?
It happened quickly. We had just done a show for Freeform called Guilt, which was a murder mystery based on Amanda Knox, created by these two brilliant women, and Darren and I ran that show. We met the people at Freeform, and towards the end of that run, we got a phone call from them saying they were looking to make a change on Shadowhunters. To be quite honest, I wasn't too aware of the show. I'd seen some trailers, so we watched season one and we started reading the books and we really got drawn in. It appealed to us in so many ways. We had worked on Smallvile and anyone familiar with that show will know how similar those two worlds are in terms of the hero's journey and questioning your destiny and asking questions of what I thought my life was before. Now, on her 18th birthday, Clary becomes something else that is destined for greatness. All that stuff spoke to us and we were excited by the challenge of taking something that was already cool in season one and trying to raise it to another level.
How would you define raising it to the next level?
From a writing standpoint, we felt like there could be more depth in the show. We felt like the characters could have more depth and there could be a more resonant emotionality in the show. In season one, we felt like things moved along very, very quickly, and the show was a little bit more plot-driven as opposed to being character-driven. What appealed to us in the great books that Cassie Clare created were these very interesting characters. It would slow down and you'd have these great moments where you'd get to know them and their back stories. When you're dealing with warlocks that live for centuries, there's so much interesting stuff that we felt could be mined.
In terms of the show visually, a producer/director named Matt Hastings joined Shadowhunters season two, and we worked with Matt on Alphas. He comes from The Originals. We felt like the show visually could be stronger. It could be less colorful and less bright and darker, and the action could be more powerful and more visceral. These visual effects, we could change them and turn them into something that will blow your mind. The portals will be different this year. The warlock magic will be different. The cat eyes will be different. The vamp speed will be different.
We thought the sets were cool. We thought they could be even cooler. We brought in a new production designer. We expanded the look of the show. We tried pushing the actors into uncomfortable places and got them to dig down deep. All of that stuff, I think, plays into a season two that people will find really rewarding. If you liked season one, we think you'll really like season two. If you've never seen the show, I think you'd be thrilled with it as well.
What was the overall impression in watching the first season?
In general, the show felt a little young. Some of that was the beginning of the story, but also the way that it was shot and the way that the actors portrayed their characters. In the books, they are young, in fact. They're all teenagers, and now you have Matt Daddario, you have Dom Sherwood, you have Harry Shum, Jr. These guys that are in their mid to late 20s, and so some of that tone needed to be made a little bit more adult.
Jace, in the books, is really funny and really has a great, wry sense of humor. You didn't really see that as much in season one. There seemed to be an emphasis on the adults in the show, and it felt like some of the stories were getting away from our seven people on the poster. They were getting less screen time than we felt like they needed. That's not to say that we're shutting the adults out. Of course not. Such a great part of the show is this generational, "Mom, Dad, you did it your way. That's not the only way. We're young and different and we look at things with a different perspective." We did that, we love that, but it felt a little tilted. We wanted to focus a little bit more on our core people.
We loved the Malec stuff. Thought it was so exciting, so rich, such an interesting relationship, but we realized in season two we needed to start from the beginning, because they have this kiss at a wedding ... It's almost like The Graduate. Now it's, like, "Well, now what?" That's a really fun challenge to show the evolution of that relationship in season two. I think people will be really excited.
Seeing the swords and seeing these light sabers, it just didn't work for us. It felt derivative, the fighting. It didn't feel fresh. It didn't feel cool. We redesigned the swords, the blades have been given runes glowing on their surface. We brought in a new stunt coordinator that is mind blowing. It's much more of a martial arts approach. We do more wire work this season, just trying to elevate a lot of the stuff that was there.
There were some pretty dramatic events last season and one assumes there will be more this year. Will we be seeing more of the emotional toll that those things will take on the characters?
Very much so. One of our top priorities is to explore how these events affect these guys and gals emotionally and how much it resonates. You go through these adventures and it's so quick to go onto the next adventure, but these are life-changing moments, especially for young people. We recently did the math of the timeline, and it's been a month from when it first started to where we are now in season two. It's all happened so quickly, you forget about that. Trying to always keep in mind that it's fresh and that they're dealing with these life-altering moments is truly important. As you know, like Smallville, the events that happen all help form the person that you are, whether that's the hero or the villain or any of that. We're really trying to show the impact on all these characters.
Obviously there's a passionate Shadowhunters fan base. Do you ever have to stop and wonder if that fan base will accept the changes, or is more important to focus on what's right for the show?
Our initial instinct is to follow our inner compass. Darren and I have been working together forever, and we have very similar tastes. The reason that we were brought on is I think the powers that be shared our taste and knew our work, so at the end of the day our goal is to take the mythology, and this is very similar to what we did on Smallville with DC, and honor the source material and treat it with a reverent hand. But do our own thing. I think when you do that, the book lovers and the show lovers totally get it and are on board. They understand that we get it.
I immediately wanted to get on the phone with Cassie Clare, and I wanted to talk through her mindset. The books really were inspiring to us and it was interesting, because so much of it's tone. She's very cool with letting the material evolve, understanding that a television show is different than a series of novels or movie, and understanding the medium. What she was so pleased about was maintaining the tone from the books. If you're a fan of the books, you're going to watch the show with a smile on your face and you're going to get it, even though the things that are happening might not be exactly what happened in the book. Having said that, I love Twitter. I hear from the people on Twitter. I love to hear what they're thinking and what's going on in their head. It's interesting, but I certainly don't base creative decisions on that.
Internally, when you're making these kinds of changes, what is the reaction of the cast?
They've been really thrilled. I think they've been really responsive to the scripts that are coming their way. I told each of them that we want them to come to work and be excited about the scene they're shooting that day. If everyone feels that, and that's from the writers' room, that's from the editors, that's from the cast, that's the world of Shadowhunters — to try to bring that adrenaline surge, because you're doing good work, they dig it. They've all been super responsive to the changeover. I'm sure at first they were worried. They didn't know what was going on. They didn't know us at all, but I think our career and our credits and getting to know us helped. We went up to Toronto immediately to put their minds at ease. Then, as they're seeing these scripts, I think they're even more relaxed, because they're excited about what they're doing.
You mentioned you brought in a new producer/director, but what about the "guest" directors? Are you changing that up as well?
We came into this situation pretty late, so all the directors were booked when we jumped on board. Some of them we know. Most of them we don't, so it's been really interesting. Most all the directors are fresh on the show. Very few people from season one are doing the show, and I think that was a conscious decision by Matt Hastings to try to change the look and to try to make the show more cinematic and give the show more scope and more depth. Different cinematographer, different directors. Like I said, different production designer. The look is definitely expanded.
How involved is McG this year?
McG is involved. He is off doing his thing, but we were with him at New York during Comic-Con. He was great. He's been so supportive to me and Darren. He's there for us anytime we ever need to talk, any questions we have and we would love for him to come back and direct another episode. We're in talks right now to try to find the room in his busy schedule.
Sounds like a pretty exciting gig.
It's funny, because one of the things that really turns us on about the show is, in the times we live in today, this show really celebrates diversity in a deep way. I don't mean having actors that are diverse, but the notion that you have the Downworlders and the Shadowhunters and they're all freaks of nature. None of them are normal, but somehow they all find this common ground — that's incredibly inspiring to me.
Season two of Shadowhunters will premiere this January